Design and technology: spearheading a revolution in care for older people

A new £4m innovation fund was launched in Edinburgh this week to challenge entrepreneurs, business and technologists to devise new ways of looking after older people.

Government body Innovate UK wants fresh thinking to come up with solutions that better fit the needs of people as they grow old, instead of relying principally on institutions.

That could involve technology to support older people to live more independently – and for longer – in their own homes, which would also benefit from better design and the use of assistive technology.

The funding opportunity, available through a Small Business Research Initiative grant, will support between one to eight separate projects on development contracts of up to 24 months.

Jackie Marshall-Balloch, Programme Lead at Innovate UK, introduced the concept of ‘disrupting’ the traditional care home model with an insight into her own working career.

She recalled how an elderly man complained to a team of health professionals, of which she was part, that sending to him to a nursing home would ‘condemn’ him to a life of celibacy.

Describing it as a ‘defining moment’ in her professional working life, she said: “I went home with that statement in my mind and I asked myself ‘is this what I’m actually doing to people when I sit and convince them that they need to go into what is essentially an institutional care setting’?”

She added: “That is the challenge that we at Innovate UK, and I personally, am setting out to the finest, most brilliant and radical SMEs, academics and charities in the UK. And that challenge is to disrupt the existing models of institutional care in the UK. That challenge, that model, has been with us since the early 19th century, since 1834 when the state recognised its responsibility to look after the poor and the old.”

The challenge was unveiled at the two-day Long Term Care Revolution Live event in the conference hall of RBS’s Gogaburn headquarters in the capital.

Hosted by Scotland’s Digital Health and Care Institute, the event was billed as an important networking opportunity for funders, experts, entrepreneurs and innovators, as they come together to design new solutions for long term care.

In a spirit of collaboration it featured talks from policymakers, the care sector, technologists, designers, government agencies and large corporations, including Microsoft and Kimberley Clark.

As an example of the scale of the challenge, Ranald Mair, CEO of Scottish Care, said £1.4billion is spent each year in Scotland on unscheduled hospital admissions for older people.

“In truth, for the Scottish Government, the key priority is actually preventing hospital admission. It’s far more costly if you look at the spend of the Scottish Government on older people, it’s just over £5billion in the year; of that £1.4billion is spent on unscheduled hospital admission. If there’s one area where we’d really like to make an impact, it would be actually preventing hospital admission. The outcomes are poorer for people and the cost is huge.”

Technology-enabled living ought also to be an important focus of how health and social care services are delivered to older people, he said.

“We’re still doing a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t invest in the future and actually creates problems in older age. The whole design and embedding of technology into domestic living is hugely important.”

He gave an example of imaginative software which could store the memories of older people who suffer from memory impairment conditions such as dementia.

“If my memory is failing, can I use a technology to provide me with an additional memory capacity that I need, and how do I interact with that?”

Mair said that recent legislation to integrate health and social care represents another technological challenge, so that the two systems can interact with each other, in terms of records management.

He said unique identifiers which can track people through the health service do not extend to social care, and can once again lead to unnecessary hospital admission.

“So if I’m receiving a council service, we’re not using the same numbers and the data systems between health and social care – these two main planks don’t talk to each other.”

Among companies exhibiting digital health products more generally was Edinburgh University start-up Musemantik, which has developed a mindfulness tool in the form of a mobile app to treat depression.

The app allows users to register their mood – calm, joyful or depressed, for example – on a colourful array, before delivering personalised musical therapies to boost wellbeing.

The ‘Soulight’ platform is backed by social investor Nominet Trust, the Scottish Government and New Media Scotland’s Alt-w Fund and will be released later this year.

The deadline for the long-term care revolution national challenge registration is at noon on 26 August 2015. The deadline for applications is at noon on 2 September 2015 with projects expected to commence in January next year.